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Mercury is a silvery liquid used in thermometers, barometers and batteries. It vaporizes quickly when heated and is toxic only in its vaporized form. It is also used in various types of ointments, such as calomel. One of the most famous examples of environmental mercury contamination affecting humans occurred in Minamata, Japan between 1932 and 1968, when a local factory discharged waste liquid into Minamata Bay that contained high concentrations of elemental mercury. This resulted in the development of a disease called acrodynia, which is characterized by pink skin of the palms and soles, sluggishness, fatigue, apathy, irritability and photophobia.
The release of elemental and inorganic mercury into the atmosphere occurs from coal-fired power plants, municipal and medical waste incinerators, mining operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharges. It may enter waterways through dry deposition or wet deposition in rain and snow. Inorganic mercury may be converted to organic mercury, methylmercury, through biological bacterial processes and can bioaccumulate up the food chain from aquatic organisms to fish, wildlife, and humans.
If a spill of powdered mercury is suspected, take children and pets to another room and shut the door. Turn off any heating and air-conditioning systems, as they can spread mercury vapors. Cover the spill with a plastic sheet, ideally not cardboard, to keep it from spreading. Place any clothing and shoes that came into contact with the mercury into a trash bag and put it in a safe place until it can be cleaned.